This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,” where writers at any stage of their career can talk about seven things they’ve learned along their writing journey that they wish they knew at the beginning. This installment is from crime writer Kirk Russell.
Kirk Russell is the author of six crime fiction novels. He lives in
Berkeley, California with his wife Judy Rodgers, chef-co-owner of
San Francisco’s Zuni Café. More at kirkrussellbooks.com
1. With my first novels I wrote my way to the beginning of the story, which is say I wrote stuff that led up to the beginning but wasn’t where the really novel started. Leads to a lot of rewriting. Now I hang onto an idea longer before starting a novel. I’ll drive around with it. I’ll turn it in my head. I’ll think about it and with the crime fiction I’m writing a lot of life has already happened to the characters, so it’s an awful lot about stepping into the action at the right moment. That moment has to have weight and charisma and connection to everything that comes next.
2. No matter how small the character’s role in what’s happening, try to get their voice in your head. So if you met them you could walk down the street with them and talk. That’s not easy because invariably you’re drawing on yourself plenty as you write, but it’s a big deal, it makes it much easier if you get all the characters’ voices. If you know how they sound and move everything goes together more naturally.
3. I still tend to overpopulate my novels but I’ve learned its dangers. Each time you invite someone new into the boat it sits a little lower in the water. It takes more of a forward rush of energy and narrative drive as you add people. There’s probably a mathematical formula in there somewhere. New characters can appear as a plot turns but they shouldn’t be the crutch you lean on to make it turn.
One of Kirk Russell’s earlier crime novels,
SHELL GAMES: A JOHN MARQUEZ CRIME NOVEL,
has been selected by Amazon for promotion in its Kindle
Daily Deal on Wednesday, April 25, 2012. For one day
only, this ebook will be priced at just $1.99.
4. If you’re two thirds in and the novel stalls, the problem is more likely behind you than ahead of you. I’ve learned to go back and find the things that are not quite right or dead wrong, and many times that will clear the road ahead. I combat the lack of inertia or any frustration by making those things truer.
5. Believe in characters but trust in narrative drive. If you take anything from my seven take this one. A strong narrative drive is always your ally, your friend. It’s an enabler. It’s power. You learn that it rarely lets you down and that makes you better as an editor. You cut your own good stuff. You can write the land into the flow but you can’t stand on the side of the road and describe it. An obvious truth maybe. But as a novel takes shape events and people that once seemed important to the flow no longer are. Go with the flow. Novels evolve and some of your best stuff may not belong in the final draft. That gets said all the time too, and writers sneak their good stuff back in. They back door it and sometimes that’s okay, but the more I do this the more I respect narrative drive. There’s magic in it when it’s clean and strong.
6. So far, I haven’t written from an outline, so I can’t speak to that. Maybe if you outline it’s easier to see the end in the beginning. Maybe you think it through and you know more. But however you get there I think you learn you need to see the end in the beginning before a novel is complete, and I’m not talking about something mystic. Rather just the sense that it’s done and whole. Much different than being tired of it and telling yourself it’s done. There’s a point where it is done and there’s a feeling that comes with it.
7. On the business of writing I’ve learned to focus forward and work on the next book. Send out the query letters and go to work on the next one. After you have an agent and you are published there are new things to worry about, sales, reviews, marketing, and on, but what stays the same is that you control one thing only, the writing. You can write the next novel and try to make it a better than anything you’ve written. I think you learn to go there.
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